Cholesterol-lowering drugs may reduce the risk of stroke in older adults who appear to be healthy, according to a new study.
The study involved more than 7,400 people ages 65 and older (whose average age was 74) living in three cities in France, who had not experienced a stroke or heart attack before the study started. About 2,000 of the participants (27 percent) were taking drugs to lower their cholesterol, including statins or fibrates.
People who took cholesterol-lowering drugs were 30 percent less likely to have a stroke over a nine-year period, compared with those not taking the drugs.
The findings held even after the researchers took into account factors that could affect people's risk of stroke, such as their age, sex and blood pressure.
Currently, cholesterol-lowering drugs are not recommended for people over age 75 unless they've been diagnosed with atherosclerosis, or a build-up of plaque in the arteries. But studies of heart drugs usually don't include people over age 70, so the benefit of these drugs in older people is uncertain, according to the researchers, who were from the French Institute of Health and Medical Research and the University of Bordeaux.
It's too soon to change recommendations based on the new findings, but "the results are sufficiently compelling to justify further research" on the topic, Dr. Graeme Hankey, a professor of neurology at the University of Western Australia, wrote in an editorial accompanying the study.
Many older adults without heart disease already take cholesterol-lowering drugs as a way to prevent heart attacks and strokes, the researchers noted. [Heart of the Matter: 7 Things to Know About Your Ticker]
However, the study found only an association, and cannot prove that cholesterol-lowering drugs really do reduce the risk of stroke in older adults. The people who participated in the study also generally had a healthy lifestyle, which could contribute to a lower risk of stroke.
"I think it's promising," Dr. Kavita Sharma, director of the lipid clinic at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, said of the findings, but she added that the benefit of cholesterol-lowering drugs in older adults should be investigated further. "We don’t want to ignore classes of people who might derive benefit [from the drugs]," Sharma said, referring to the fact that many trials of cholesterol-lowering drugs have not included older adults.
If the findings are confirmed, it doesn't mean that older adults should necessarily start to take statins or other cholesterol-lowering drugs. People should speak with their doctor about whether the benefits of cholesterol-lowering drugs would outweigh the risks for them as an individual, Sharma said.
"There's not really one size fits all," Sharma said. For example, there are patients who already take many medications, and whose quality of life could worsen by adding another drug, Sharma said.
The new study did not find a link between cholesterol-lowering drugs and a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, a finding that goes against previous research on these drugs in younger people. It's possible that the study did not include enough people to detect an effect of the drugs on coronary heart disease, the researchers said.
The study was funded in part by the pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis. The study funders had no role in the study design, analysis or interpretation of the results.
The study is published this week in the journal BMJ.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.